My Vista Experience just got sooooo much better

Quietly I've been suffering through an experience with Windows Vista on my laptop.  I got my laptop, a HP/Compaq nc8430, in October 2006 and had been running Vista on it since then.  In the early days, I used a pre-release version of vista, but I switched to the generally-released (RTM) version as soon as it was available.

The laptop is a nice piece of hardware - it's got a huge, bright 1680x1050 screen, a solid keyboard, a touchpad and a mouse stick (nipple?).  It's got good sound, a 100gb hard drive, a fast processor.  I got the spare battery.  IT also has a fingerprint scanner, built-in reader for smartcards and SD storage, 3 USB ports, built-in Bluetooth and 802.11g wireless networking.  Also it's solid, built like a tank. As a "work machine" it's not what you would call "exciting".  It doesn't have flashy looks or wafer-thin profile (and the slim battery life to go with it).  It's not as light as a feather, but I'm a big guy and I can handle the heft, whatever it is.  It never bothered me.  Overall, I am very pleased with the hardware.

Who's Driving This Thing?

The problems I had with Vista on this machine started early.  I did not have an OEM-blessed install of the OS on the machine, and some device drivers were lacking.  The fingerprint reader, I think was one of them.  Also the function keys - like the one to turn on and off the wireless network, or the one to flip the machine into presentation mode - also lacked Vista-compatible drivers.  There's a mobile data protection thing in the hard drive - an accelerometer that protects the hard drive from sudden drops - that one also did not work.  Lots of people may doubt the value in the mobile data protection thing, but I experienced a data loss first hand from sudden laptop droppage.  It happened with my old IBM Thinkpad - I dropped it on a bed, a BED mind you!  in a hotel room while I was travelling.  The laptop immediately experienced drive errors and it was never the same since then.  So I totally understand the value. Anyway, the driver for the accelerometer on the hard drive was lacking for Vista.

As a result I was using a slightly crippled install - some drivers were totally lacking, and for other devices, I installed WinXP-compatible drivers and winced as I ok'd through the "are you sure  you want to do this?" dialogs.  And the user experience resulting from the mishmash of drivers was accordingly poor. I'd get bluescreens with the accelerometer stuff.  I'd have trouble waking up and hibernating.  Some ordering of hibernate, sleep, wakeup, and re-sleep would cause my PC to just shut down completely. There's never a good time for your laptop to just turn off.  But it happened a couple times a week to me. 

I signed up for HP's driver alert email, so I would know about the latest releases of drivers for the thing.  But the emails I got several times per week seemed to have a lot of noise - alerts about new marketing programs and stuff I just did not need to know about. As a result I stopped reading the emails and was in the dark as to when the drivers were being updated. 

When I had the time and energy, I would manually visit the HP site to check for new drivers, and wouldn't you know it, every time I visited there would be new and updated drivers.  Monthly, sometimes more often, I would update the machine, crossing my fingers, hoping, hoping!  that somehow, please please please, finally the PC would be working the way it ought to, the way my WinXP SP2 machines were running - solid!  But while the various problems changed or morphed, they never seemed to go away.

AC power = A Useless Machine

One of the nastiest problems was with disconnecting and re-connecting from AC power.  It seemed that every time I connected to AC power, the hard drive would thrash for 10 minutes and the machine would essentially become useless.  Apparently this disk thrash was not an unusual user experience. If I was low on battery and walked into a meeting, I'd be forced to plug into AC, and then endure the 10 minutes (no kidding, 10 full minutes) of PC uselessness. I searched and searched and never could diagnose this problem.  I turned off Vista search indexing, thinking it was that. (this was a huge setback in user experience).  I imagined it was some combination of poor device drivers coupled with heavy disk use. I turned off Sidebar.  I turned off everything I could find, trying to minimize stress on the machine. I disabled superfetch.  Nothing solved it.  Finally I resorted to planning my business day around hooking up to AC power.  I could do it before lunch.  I could do it in evening just before I left for home.  Living like this was utterly stupid.

I was hoping that Vista SP1 would solve the problem for me. 

The Tide Turns

In early December 2007 I went through a huge batch of HP driver updates.  Slowly the problems lessened, it seemed.  Then in January I did it again, found a whole new batch of updates. Once more in early March I did it again.  For the first time there was a BIOS update for the machine!  Whoo-hoo!  With all the updates, things were looking good:  The bluescreens on hibernate/sleep/unsleep/sleep went away.   The accelerometer started working.  The function keys started working.  Then one night earlier this week I dedicated some time to diagnosing the final remaining annoyance: the hard-drive-spin-up-when-on-AC-power thing.   Turns out, all along, it was a Defrag task. 

In the Task scheduler for Vista, there's a bunch of settings - one that says "don't do this task while on battery power" and another that says "do this task as soon as you are able".  (it is worded as "Run task as soon as possible after a scheduled start is missed").  My weekly full defrag was set to run at 3am on Thursday morning.  Sometimes the machine would be OFF at that time, so as soon as I turned it on, and plugged it into AC power, the defrag would start.  And it would hammer the disk. 

I looked into it, and found an article that guided me through some of the possibilities in adjusting the task schedules. Just turning off the "Run task as soon as possible after a scheduled start is missed" checkbox avoided a world of hurt for me.  This should never be the default option on a laptop, in my opinion.  

I'm in Love.  Again!

I am proud to say, I now love my laptop again. I love my laptop more than I ever thought I could. Things are better than ever between us!

Listen, for those of you who doubt, for those of you who go through hell in your relationship... let me tell you, it does get better.  You go through dark days, thinking, I need to get out of this relationship!  I can't take it anymore!  But then the other half of you is saying, "what about all I've invested in it?  If we somehow got over this rough spot, we could still have a beautiful future together!"  It all seems an impossible dream.  Well, I'm here to tell you, that things can get better. Even when things look darkest, it is still possible to recover and get to a happy place.  It is possible to Find Love Again!

Ok, off to install Vista SP1 !

ps: I still have superfetch turned off.

Comments (3)

  1. MichaelGG says:

    So why’d you put up with 18 months of hellish experience if XP worked fine? (I put up with it cause I like the shiny UI… and now I’m using NT6 only APIs in dev.)

    Fortunately, the only good side to all this is that I think that MS may have learned their lesson (especially certain idiot execs) and I can only imagine Windows 7 is going to be MUCH nicer.

  2. cheeso says:

    I put up with Vista because…. I am a stalwart.

    I talked to a bunch of people with the same machine who had good experiences, somehow  I believed I had a bad driver or bad install somewhere.   It was always one of those things – I’ll figure this out eventually!  But only now have I solved it.  

    SP1 installed yesterday – it was smooth and easy and painless.  Everything is good now.

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